French President Emanuel Macron is finding that translating his ideas espoused on the campaign trail into public policy is wreaking havoc on his popularity gained from his landslide victory just three months ago.
Macron is running into the same problems his three predecessors discovered when they, too, tried to reform the archaic labor laws that are a huge drag on the economy. The president is also in hot water with several other groups over proposed budget cuts to trim the size of government, reform pensions, and rein in military spending.
France has the second largest economy in Europe, but it's been hamstrung in recent decades by a plethora of union-friendly labor contracts and 3,000 pages of labor laws that makes it virtually impossible to fire anyone while granting extraordinarily generous pay and benefits to all workers. Unemployment is close to 10% - worse for working age adults under the age of 25. Economic growth has been stagnant and the productivity rate is among the worst in the EU.
Can Macron succeed where his predecessors failed?
Macron, a centrist first-time candidate who swept to power at age 39, still has similar or higher popularity than most of his predecessors at the same point in their terms. Former President François Hollande enjoyed an approval rating of 56 percent in July 2012, François Mitterrand was down to 48 percent, and Nicolas Sarkozy was still flying high at 66 percent.
In each case, the rating in July had little bearing on long-term averages.
Even so, Macron’s shrinking score is a tough reality check for a president whose first weeks in power were uncommonly blessed. It comes after he held a number of high-flying meetings with world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, and now turns to deal with a stuttering domestic economy and unpopular plans to shrink the country’s deficit over the next year.
Budget cuts are planned for multiple sectors, including a short-term one in the military, which prompted top officer Pierre de Villiers to resign this week in a public fracas that tested Macron’s authority.
The poll showed voter groups concerned by cuts turning against the president. His approval score dropped by 18 percentage points among civil servants, by 11 points among over-65s worried about planned changes to the pension system, and by 25 points among supporters of the centrist MoDem party, whose leaders left the government last month amid a scandal at the European Parliament.
Things are only set to get tougher. In September, outrage over public sector budget cuts will combine with fury over plans to overhaul labor rules and trigger street protests across the country. The anti-Macron front will have a fiery, uncompromising leader in MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is already planning demonstrations for after the summer lull.
"Summer lull" is a euphemism for the unprecedented 5 weeks of vacation granted French workers by law. The entire economy shuts down during this time. Not even Macron is proposing any changes that grants some French workers up to 9 weeks of vacation a year.
But Macron is proposing other changes that are likely to enrage many workers.
In talks with union and business leaders, Macron and his labor minister, Muriel Penicaud, focused on three main areas: giving individual companies more say on contractual issues such as working hours and pay; merging the myriad workers’ councils that proliferate as companies grow (they’re why France has so many 49-employee companies); and putting limits on court-imposed severance pay, which are widely viewed as so unpredictable that they discourage companies from hiring people in the first place. As always, the devil is in the details, and there’s lots of detail in those three areas. One area that’s not up for discussion is France’s 35-hour work week, which has been weakened enough over the years that it’s no longer seen as a priority.
4. How does Macron plan to get this done?
He wants to avoid taking the usual route, which is sending a formal proposal to parliament, where debate and amendments might well water it down. Instead, Macron and Penicaud -- a former head of human resources at Danone -- met unions and business leaders throughout May to establish what they might and won’t accept. On June 28, Macron’s cabinet asked parliament to give his government the power to change the country’s labor law by decree. Macron’s party has an overwhelming majority in parliament, and that law is expected to pass later this month. The government will then resume talks with labor and business leaders, and publish the decrees in September.
Macron can issue as many decrees as he wishes, but the unions and labor activists are adept at filling the streets with protesters, putting pressure on the government to dial back any reforms.Meaningful reform is not possible under these conditions, which is why the French economy will remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future.